TWO WHEELS AROUND NEW ZEALAND
A Bicycle Journey on Friendly Roads
Chapter 1: Of Eeels and Possums
have sharp teeth," Russell was saying as we rattled down the road
towards the start of the track. We sat three-abreast in the dusty front
seat of his truck; the packs bounced along in back. "Eels chase trout
sometimes," Russell continued. "Consider 'em
good tucker, I reckon."
don't bother fishermen, do they?" I asked, leaning forward and looking
past Kate to Russell.
eels won't worry you, you'll be 'right." Then, as kind of an
afterthought, he added, "They do get mighty big, though."
big, I wondered.
pulled in at Ngamuriwai Flat and unloaded the
packs. Russell slid back his terry cloth hat and then started to roll a
likely to run into a possum or two," he said without looking up.
"Pesky lil' buggers. Kiwi possums have a
sort of pig-like snout and make a gruntin' noise.
Not like the possums you Yanks are used to. They're nocturnal and damn
me hide if they don't get into everythin'."
pulled on our backpacks, bid Russell farewell, and started walking. Kate
and I were tramping to the junction of the Wairoa
and Waiau Rivers on New Zealand's North Island.
It was December 29th. We'd been in New Zealand exactly two weeks.
the first couple miles we tramped through hills stripped bare by lumbering.
Then we crossed into the Urewara National Park
and, simultaneously, heavy bush. The track dropped into the deep recess of
a valley. Hungry hook grass tore at our legs; pigfern
hindered our passage. At the valley floor the track zigzagged across a
small stream a hundred times. Often the track simply was the stream. Six
hours in from the road, Kate and I reached Parahaki
Hut and unshouldered our packs. Thick bush
bordered the hut on three sides, the Waiau River
on the fourth. A wooden veranda ran along two walls of the hut. Inside we
found chairs and a rickety table, an open fireplace, and old candle
remnants. Twelve torn mattresses topped an equal number of bunks that stood
three high against one wall.
near dusk, I stood in thigh-deep water, fishing and shivering. I cast my
fly to pass along an overhanging bush. Suddenly a four-foot apparition
slithered out of the black, opened a giant mouth to the fly, then pulled back. As quickly as it had
come, the eel
disappeared. I looked down at my bare legs, then
eased myself out of the water—enough for tonight.
* * * * * * *
couple days after we arrived at Parahaki Hut, a
round bushman and his twelve year old daughter strolled in. The man wore a
soiled shirt, soiled running shorts, and half-laced gumboots. He carried a
scopeless rifle. His small compatriot was similarly
stained and frequently pushed back her stringy blonde hair. She carried a
hunting knife belted bandito-style around her middle.
pair were deer hunting along the river and stopped
by in hopes of finding a cup of tea. Earlier we had learned that bush
etiquette states that the hosts provide a "hot cuppa."
Soon the billy pot came alive with the smell of
sweet tea. As the tea began to boil, I asked about eels.
I'm keen on eels," the man said as he sat down on the wooden veranda.
"Beautiful piece of flesh to eat. Bit greasy, but nice white
catch eels and eat them?" Kate asked, joining him.
right," the man returned. I poured the tea. The round man and the
small girl wrapped their hands around the cups and felt the warmth. The
girl blew the heat off the top of her cup. "Jus' find the
stinkiest, rottenest, ol'
piece of meat you can," the man continued, "and put it on a
treble 'ook. Then find a dark looking log jam and
drop it under. Wait 'til they swallow it 'ole or the 'ook
will just pull right out." Kate and I exchanged looks.
man sipped the tea and gave a sigh of satisfaction. "She caught an eel
last night," he said, nodding to his daughter.
girl smiled, eyes twinkling, and replied, "You helped, Dad."
smiled back at her, like they were sharing a secret. "We got it 'anging in a plastic bag
back at our 'ut," he said. "We were going to leave today
but, with the eel, we'll stay another day. If we're lucky enough to get a
deer, we'll probably stay a few more."
girl followed her Dad's words attentively. When it came time for her to
talk, he didn't interrupt. She spoke with childish enthusiasm and often
looked to her Dad with pride. "Dad used to hunt here when he was a
lad. Back then there were heaps of deer and he could get all he wanted.
Yesterday we almost shot one but Dad wasn't sure if it was a stag or a
do you pack a deer out of the bush?" I asked.
worries, mate," the man responded. "Bone
out the front, sack it, and put it in the small pack for 'er. I carry out the 'ind
quarter on me back, rest me arms on the legs."
about storing the meat if you decide to stay?" Kate asked.
man looked into his emptying cup and smiled. "Well, you can do a
couple things. I might dig a 'ole in the river
bank, bag it, and bury it. Or 'ang it in the fire
'til it gets all sooty and crusty. Even if it does get blown, don't
"Ya know, if the blow flies lay
their eggs on the meat and maggots start eating away. Jus' cut the bad 'unk
smiled. Kate turned green. The round man and the small girl lifted their
cups high, thanked us for the tea, and moved on.
* * * * * * *
evening Kate and I took turns reading aloud by firelight, then dozed off.
Sometime in the middle of the night, long after the fire had died, we were
awakened by a loud grating noise on the metal roof. "BANG, BANG,
BANG" moved across the length of the hut, followed by a hurried,
panicked scurrying, an agonizing slide, a brief moment of silence...and
finally a deafening "CRASH!"
this time Kate and I were both upright in our bunks. I crept to the door
and peered out in time to see a chubby possum extracting his bruised ego
from a pile of metal alongside the hut.
just a possum," I reported with a sigh of relief.
agonized Kate. "I have to pee."
on," I said, "it won't hurt you."
no way I'm going out there," she replied, and with that returned
uncomfortably to bed. Soon, however, Kate stood back at the door, timidly
peeking out. As she stepped onto the porch, I heard a bloodcurdling scream.
"Scott! He's right there!" WHAM!, the
door slammed. Only the far wall of the hut stopped Kate's retreat.
enough the possum sat three feet from the door, staring at us like a lost
child. The possum was about the size of a big cat. Fat and fur
lumped its belly. The possum's eyes looked like
oversized marbles and glowed with the reflection of my flashlight. A long
tail, curled at the end, stretched out behind it. We looked at each other
for several moments and then the possum made its way slowly up a post and
disappeared onto the roof. Kate, meanwhile, huddled behind me muttering
articulate things like "Yuk" and "Gross."
closed the door, Kate crossed her legs; her face contorted in pain. "I
gotta go so bad,"
go! I'm going to bed."
no, wait, wait. Please! You shine the light while I go. If he jumps on me
I'm going to die." Kate walked hesitantly onto the veranda. At the
edge she stopped.
am not stepping off this porch...ooo, no way!
He's so uncoordinated he'll fall off the roof on me and bite my butt!"
night, honey," I said. "I'm going to bed." I started to
close the door.
OK. Just don't leave me!" And so Kate went, but not without yelling,
"Shine the light over there, quick over there." As she sprinted
back into the hut at the end of it all, Kate pronounced, "I WILL NOT
go back out there tonight no matter how bad I have to go!" With that
she zipped deeply into her sleeping bag, mummified for the night.
above came the rattle of the possum moving precariously about, oblivious to
the excitement it had caused.
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